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Judge rules Marsy's Law does not apply to police officers on duty in Tony McDade case

Jeff Burlew
Tallahassee Democrat
Walton Sun

A Leon Circuit judge ruled today that the Tallahassee police officer who shot and killed Tony McDade is not protected under Marsy’s Law, clearing the way for release of his name.

Judge Charles Dodson found that Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018, doesn’t apply in the high-profile use-of-force case. Marsy's Law granted crime victims the right to prevent disclosure of information that could be used to "locate or harass" them and their families.

The order could well set the first controlling legal precedent on what is considered Florida's crime victim bill of rights and its application in police use-of-force cases.

“The court finds that the explicit language of Marsy's Law was not intended to apply to law enforcement officers when acting in their official capacity,” Dodson wrote.

The judge, in a brisk five-page order, added that law enforcement officers have "a unique duty" to enforce the laws of the state but are not shielded by Marsy's Law.

"Theirs is a very difficult and important job," Dodson wrote. "The public has a vital right to evaluate the conduct of our law enforcement officers, who are empowered to arrest people and use deadly force. For this court to hold that on-duty law enforcement officers may use Marsy's Law to prevent the disclosure of their names would provide them with a protection not intended by the express purpose of that law."

First Amendment advocates hailed the decision as major legal victory.

“Today’s ruling was a win for public oversight and police accountability," said Mark Caramanica, an attorney for news outlets that intervened in the case. "The court correctly found that Marsy’s Law is not a vehicle to hide police action from the public.”

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which sued the city to block release of the officers' names, immediately filed notice of its intent to appeal. The move likely means the officers' names won't be released for now.

Stephen Webster, an attorney for the PBA, said he appreciated the "careful attention" Dodson gave the lawsuit.

"I respect the job that he does always," Webster said. "We obviously disagree. We filed notice of appeal. And the officers are entitled to an automatic stay of the ruling pending review by the 1st District Court of Appeal.”

The back story:

McDade, 38, a Black transgender man, was killed May 27, just minutes after stabbing a next-door neighbor to death on Saxon Street and fleeing to apartments on nearby Holton Street. An arriving officer used deadly force after McDade pointed a gun at him, police officials have said. Another officer also was on scene during the shooting.

The PBA filed its lawsuit last month to shield the officers from public release of their names. Attorneys for the police union argued that the officers were victims of aggravated assault and thus protected under Marsy’s Law.

The city and a consortium of news outlets and organizations, including the Tallahassee Democrat, argued otherwise, saying police officers carrying out their official duties should not be granted confidentiality. Attorneys for the media said ruling otherwise would prevent the public from holding police accountable.

The PBA also argued that releasing the officers' names could jeopardize their lives. In its complaint, the PBA said people at the scene threatened the officer who shot McDade and that there has since been "ongoing animosity" against him since.

"His fear for his safety is reasonable, especially given the current unrest that has followed in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis," the police union wrote in its lawsuit.

But Dodson rejected that argument. He noted that while the PBA seeks to treat the officers as victims, the people who would have been accused are dead, "killed by the officers in the line of duty."

"The officers ... apparently seek protection from possible retribution for their on-duty actions from unknown persons in the community," Dodson wrote. "This type of protection is outside the scope of Marsy's Law and is inconsistent with the express purpose and language of the amendment. This court cannot interpret Marsy's Law to shield police officers from public scrutiny of their official actions."

Check back with Tallahassee.com for more on this story.

Contact Jeff Burlew at jburlew@tallahassee.com or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.

This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.